Exploring the Paunsaugunt Plateau

By Mike Bezemek

I was 30-something miles into my day, pushing a loaded bike up a never-ending heap I’d nicknamed Powder Mountain, when I began talking to myself. Stuff like: Where did things go wrong? Why did you insist on this trail? And: How come hoodoos are SO stupid? I’d stopped gazing at the pink sandstone spires to instead stare at dust clouds rising with every plodding step. Hopefully no one could see me. I probably looked like Peanuts’ Pig-Pen with a backpack and schizophrenia.

This was supposed to be a two-day victory lap on a new bikepacking loop I’d been scouting over four months on the Paunsaugunt Plateau. During eight days spread across two trips, I’d covered several hundred miles of trails and forest roads — by bike, foot, and truck. I sought 80 to 100 miles that would loop some of Utah’s most remarkable scenery — including Red Canyon, Flat Top Mountain, Casto Canyon, Thunder Mountain, and Bryce Canyon National Park — without backtracking.

I’d left unexplored only seven miles of singletrack on Grandview Trail, between the outlet of Thunder Mountain Trail and Forest Road 109 at Proctor Canyon. Now it was mid-September, daylight was dwindling, my water was running low, and I was learning that this was the hardest part of the route. I’d walked through dust for an hour, which didn’t include another hour carrying down a landslide and navigating past a half-dozen entrenched creek beds. I was moving about 1.5 miles per hour, which put my water resupply spot up to three hours away if conditions didn’t change. If that was dry, I might have to give up, camp thirsty, and ride out to the highway in the morning. So much for victory, I muttered. You shoulda just bought a fat bike. How did you even get here?

In May, my wife and I had gone to Bryce Canyon — her favorite national park — for a two-day backpacking trip. Inquiring at the visitor center about the Riggs Spring Loop Trail, a tight-lipped desk ranger said few ever visited because it was just forest without hoodoos. Pressing him for info, the desk ranger admitted he’d never been there. So we booked a permit to check it out.

The steep but manageable descent included plenty of scenic hoodoos, very few day hikers, and only two other backpacking couples. But Riggs Spring left a bit to be desired from an NPS designated campsite. The spring-fed pipe was cracked and leaking onto a muddy hillside, leaving only a trickle. Despite a fire ban, there were dozens of charcoal pits. Not to mention plenty of brown piles.

“Not sure how I feel about all this bear shit,” said a concerned backpacker upon arrival. 

I’d noticed the piles, which looked more like cow patties to me. But grazing was outlawed in the park, and bears were known to be active. On a side hike down Lower Podunk Creek, we discovered the NPS boundary fence had washed away — perhaps quite recently when the creek flooded its banks. And just outside the boundary, I stumbled across a junction with the rugged Grandview trail — the first in a series of catalysts for a new bikepacking mission.

On the hike out, I missed a trail junction and led my wife, with sore legs, for an extra mile along an old service road near Yovimpa Point. Next, on our drive along Highway 63, I noticed a similar service road rising up through pine forest from the East Fork Sevier River below. And as we descended Highway 12 through Red Canyon — with a paved bike path running adjacent and Thunder Mountain trail nearby — an idea struck me. Could all these options stitch together into a single loop?

The internet research rabbit hole revealed patchy beta. A previous bikepacker had reconned parts, but not all, of Grandview and reported tough but passable conditions. A van-supported mountain biking outfitter ran a trip that routed cyclists from Rainbow Point directly down to the East Sevier and onward to the Sunset Cliffs. A 100-mile trail run included the same sections of Grandview that intrigued me. And a maze of forest roads crisscrossed the region.

With each puzzle piece, my casual interest became a mild obsession. No one seemed to have done such a loop. But why? Maybe it wasn’t possible — due to impassible roads, locked gates, or agency regulations. Or maybe it rolled under upturned noses — hidden in a heavy tourist area hyper-focused on drive-throughs of Bryce Canyon. But surely the scenery would outweigh the segments that guaranteed encounters with crowds? There was only one way for a roving rider bent on creative cycling explorations to answer these questions. I decided to return in two weeks after a paddling trip through Cataract Canyon. But a series of delays — including waiting out smoke from a forest fire at nearby Brian Head — meant it was early July before I returned with my bikepacking rig for some solo exploration.

I dropped by the Red Canyon Visitor Center to pick up maps and chat with some Dixie National Forest rangers. After hearing my plan, a friendly young staffer — a lanky six-feet, five-inches tall and maybe 21 with a fake I.D. — eagerly pulled out maps. One was the free Powell Ranger District Travel Map, which showed active roads and trails but didn’t offer topography. Another was a $5 USFS waterproof topo that covered the entire Paunsaugunt Plateau. This one carried a publishing date of 1992 and didn’t show many roads and trails — or used different names and numbers for identical features.

Back in those free-spirited days, my idealistic plan was to begin a three-day trip by route finding north around Flat Top, a dramatic mountain of dark sandstones and hoodoos north of Highway 12. There were several forest roads and trails that seemed to connect such a circuit. But satellite imagery showed many faint traces vanishing amid rocky terrain or fallen forests, and I hoped to confirm conditions. My new friend, the lanky staffer, was very forthcoming. He pointed out the farthest he’d explored into that region — a campground in aspens just south of Flat Top. Beyond that he wasn’t sure, so he pointed to an older ranger in a rolling chair.

“He might know,” said the young staffer before leaning in. “But he tends to get off topic.”

A half hour later, I’d learned this genial fella had been on every road and trail on the plateau. Circa 1975. I also learned it was Casto Canyon and not Castro — a common mistake. Plus, the famous tunnel through Red Fin Rock? Completed in 1925 — to celebrate the opening of what was then called Utah National Park. Not-so-fun fact: every season a few oncoming cars collide after swerving over the double line to get away from the curved tunnel ceiling — which is 13-feet, six-inches tall at the corners, just like the sign says.

And, returning to the question of my route? Everything went through — though nothing was maintained and no one went up there anymore. Riding it wasn’t possible — unless you had a good mountain bike and you knew what you were doing. In which case, it shouldn’t be that hard. But lost travelers have died out there. And my loop-through-Bryce idea? Couldn’t be done! Was illegal! Sounded impossible! Or might be fine.

I left the visitor center grateful for the info and disturbed by my stinging new set of ulcers. 

I drove up to the NPS ranger office. I wanted to do everything aboveboard. No poaching. No sneaking. But I also didn’t want to get scared off by any so-called authorities more concerned with communicating authority than providing facts.

In the parking lot, I saw a friendly ranger we’d met on the trail below Yovimba Point back in May. An open and knowledgeable guy, we’d hiked for an hour chatting about everything from John Wesley Powell to the state of the Riggs Spring campsite and that misinformed desk ranger’s claim there were no hoodoos along the hike. The friendly ranger had just arrived to his latest seasonal post, and his noble goal was to hike every trail he could in every park he worked. He worried that many rangers didn’t explore their parks enough. Some were focused on socializing, law enforcement, or athletic challenges, and just visited the famous highlights, such as Bryce Amphitheater or Under-the-Rim Trail. Some were like the park service — always broke. Meaning that distant trails and damaged fencing went unknown by their respective parties.

I pulled out my maps and described my intended route.

“This is awesome!” he blurted, beckoning to a fellow ranger. The two offered encouraging phrases like cool idea! Great adventure! And you gotta do this.

“But is it legal?” I asked.

The two glanced at each other and shrugged. Then the friendly ranger reasoned that visitors are allowed to enter the park from other access points, as long as they’ve paid the entrance fee. Foot traffic only via trails, but old forest roads are fine for a nonmotorized bike. And while there might be gates, these were to prevent vehicles from bypassing the fee windows.

“I have a parks pass,” I offered.

“Then you’re covered,” said the friendly ranger, confidently. His colleague nodded, and the situation seemed settled. Now I just had to ride the thing.

Early the next morning I rode north for a dozen miles past the tiny airport on dirt roads, ATV tracks, and the scenic Toms Best Road. On the far side of Flat Top, I turned into hills and followed FR-190 or -123 — depending which map I read — a rocky road along a burbling creek. It was nice to see water flowing, given daytime highs for the next few days were projected to approach 80 degrees at Bryce Canyon town, sitting around 7,700 feet. I’d become increasingly nervous about the heat factor, but one reassurance was elevation — ranging from a low of 7,000 feet near the bottom of Red Canyon to a high of 9,115 feet at Rainbow Point. Mornings and evenings would be cool, even if I had to break for several hours mid-afternoons. And despite spending much of the past month — working, paddling, and riding — between 4,000 and 8,000 feet, I knew oxygen might still be an issue when pushing a fully loaded bike.

But my biggest apprehension remained the solo route finding. It was peak tourist season, with an endless line of cars visible in the distance going to and from Bryce Canyon on Highway 12. But this morning I’d seen only three trucks on the north plateau — one of which was a bored forest service ranger aimlessly turning down side roads. I’d tried to wave him down to chat, but he just waved back and kept driving.

When I reached a junction with what the travel map called FR-1091 and the topo map called Dutton Trail, I turned west onto rough doubletrack and rode up a rugged ravine. My hope was this connector might give a feel for the region before committing to the Hancock Trail, which had seemed so faded in satellite images. As the incline steepened, the aspen-lined road rutted and the temps rose. When I hopped off to walk, I realized mid-morning had already eclipsed 80° and was heading toward 90. Not good, I thought, as I huddled in a small patch of shade.

Continuing, I passed several unmarked roads entering from the south, but already I’d learned there were many unmapped tangents to ignore. Reaching a sandy saddle, a marked dirt trail came in from the north. The designation had been sandblasted off the post, but this appeared to be the West Hunt Trail. I must have unwittingly joined 191, I figured, which could have been one of those unmarked southern roads. After gasping over a loose butte, I reached another junction in an area where five roads and trails joined within a half mile. There, while gulping water, I made a critical mistake that I only unraveled much later.

The travel map showed that after West Hunt entered, 191 diverted west and dead-ended at the Hancock Trail. This same map showed Hancock winding over ridges to the top of Casto Canyon. I knew the topo map showed a different course, with Hancock curving south and connecting with FR-183, where the lanky staffer had described his lovely camp in aspens. But navigation seemed too iffy. In my heat-fatigued state, the safest option seemed turning south to climb a gravel road. Yes, it was unmarked, but landmarks suggested it was FR-122, which followed a small creek and went past Flat Top back toward Toms Best Road. From there I could backtrack toward Casto Canyon.

I mounted several small peaks through a remarkable high-desert landscape before I realized my error. FR-122 went down a creek, not up one and away from it. Now I was on the wrong side of Flat Top, my bike felt even heavier, and every direction meant more climbing. I regretted my whole approach. You should have scouted the area with day rides, I scolded myself. You should have come during cooler weather. You shouldn’t have insisted on looping Flat Top. I had a sneaking suspicion I was still on 191. Another grueling hour — including carrying down a steep hillside of cobbles that had covered the road — confirmed this. I reached Toms Best Road near the exact spot I’d departed that morning. I’d spent six hours, 27 miles, and 2,500 feet of climbing to basically ride a loaded bike on a scenic day loop. Adding insult to fatigue, the bored ranger drove past in his truck with a casual wave.

I rode to a pine grove, hopped off my bike, and cracked my Hydroflask. On easier bikepacking tours, it would be filled with cold beer for camp. But today, out of desert caution, I’d opted for ice water. It was 2:00 pm[sm caps], with temps in the mid-90s, when I plopped down in pine needles and shade to debate a new plan. Returning to the truck seemed like failure, but pushing onward with a loaded bike through confusing territory during a rising heatwave was asking for burnout. After finishing my cold water, I decided to ride downhill to Red Canyon Campground and regroup. I could retrieve my truck, car camp, do day rides, and search for a route. If I found a loop, I’d return during cooler weather and bikepack it.

For three days, I started riding at sunrise. I explored the Cassidy and Rich Trail throughout Red Canyon. There I found sharp switchbacks, hardpacked steeps, sandy swales, and remarkable viewpoints, often skipped over by tourists making beelines for Bryce. I descended the short singletrack of intimate Losee Canyon and was blown away by dramatic hoodoos surrounding the packed ATV trail through Casto. I rode up the paved path to Coyote Hollow Road and then down the otherworldly Thunder Mountain singletrack.

With 1,700 feet of descent to 600 feet up — in the suggested western direction — Thunder Mountain Trail winds through orange spires like a mountain bike route hidden in Bryce Canyon. Due to loose switchbacks and sandy sections, the ride is more about scenery than surface quality. But it’s plenty of fun and easily the best trail in the area. Of note: Bryce Canyon is often credited as being the inspiration behind Disney’s Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, built in 1979. But one old ranger believed the original horse trail’s name predates the roller coaster, suggesting Thunder Mountain Trail may be the actual influence.

Despite the steady tourist traffic on Highway 12, I encountered few visitors on the trails. Two groups of ATVs in Casto. Some grazing cattle in Losee that took me for a cowboy and herded along for a hectic half mile. A few mountain bikers and hikers on Thunder. And a guided horse trip on Cassidy.

As I dismounted and moved off the trail, the lead wrangler drawled to his guests, “He just might be one of the good ones.” We chatted about my search for a loop. The lead wrangler declared there was a cabin where Hancock Trail entered Casto that had once been occupied by Butch Cassidy. The outlaw allegedly holed up in Red Canyon during the early 1880s. 

The younger wrangler rolled his eyes and glanced at my bike wistfully, like he wanted to swap conveyances.

“We ride the same damn trail every day,” he whispered as I passed.

It took two ride-throughs, but I found the collapsed cabin on a terrace above Casto Creek. Maybe it was Butch Cassidy’s? But the west is filled with sites supposedly related to the famous outlaw — Butch slept in this bunkroom! Cassidy robbed this old bank! Man, that dude ate a sandwich here! — I remain unconvinced. Finding Hancock was even tougher, just a faint discoloration between prickly shrubs that didn’t look traversed in years, so I never attempted.

With heavy legs on my last day, I drove my truck along forest roads linking Tropic Reservoir and Grandview Trail. I parked near the national park boundary, carried my bike around a vehicle gate, and rode up the service road. The ascent was 1,000 feet in a little over 1.5 miles. Walking two steep spots, it took 30 minutes before I crossed Highway 63 and gazed out from the top step of the Grand Staircase.

I rode another mile up to Rainbow Point where I eavesdropped on a tour guide explaining 63 was the only way in and out of the park. This seemed an encouraging but anticlimactic end for my second stage. While I’d now connected all junctions for a highly customizable loop, I still hadn’t ridden everything — nor seen those final seven miles on Grandview. As I drove down through Red Canyon Tunnel to my next project, I was determined to return for Stage 3. How hard could those seven miles possibly be? I rationalized.

And now, in mid-September, the answer seemed to be pretty darn hard, you dummy. That morning I’d zipped down the paved path and across Toms Best Road — waved at the bored ranger who motored past in his truck, as usual. I grinned through beautiful-as-ever Casto Canyon — even though a flash flood since my last visit had jumbled the track somewhat. I skipped Thunder to conserve energy, my one good decision — and made it five miles up Grandview before landslides, creek crossings, and powder mountain had sapped my confidence more than strength. I was chiding myself, again, for not day-riding this final section. A good lesson learned for the next time I scout a new bikepacking route. But for now, I just wanted to see the thing through, mistakes and all.

It’s moments like these that having a riding partner can mean the difference between motivated and miserable. I needed to stop beating myself up and find a distraction. I looked up at the hazy horizon above powder mountain. What was that shape in the wavy heat lines? Maybe a summit? A road marker? Or could it be ... was that my frequent riding partner, Dr. Boberts Hawaii, M.D.? Imagined, of course, but perched like an enlightened monk in a treetop.

Hey, imaginary Boberts, I joked. Got myself in a fix again. Tried to do too much.

Ride or ride not, said imaginary Boberts. There is no try.

Smartass. I put my head down and pushed — not sure how long — until Powder Mountain compacted and leveled off. I hopped on and rode through forest, up a ridge, through several ravines. From a rock face at the back of a shady cove emerged a pipe pouring cold spring water. I collected three liters and dropped in the same number of treatment tablets. I soaked a hand towel and cooled my face to reenergize.

Couldn’t have planned it better myself, said imaginary Boberts.

Yes, I knew this was here all along. I shifted my eyes suspiciously. 

Continuing, the forest opened up and a mile of loose dirt brought me to Proctor Creek, my intended water resupply, and the familiar sight of FR-109. It had taken almost four hours to cover those seven mystery miles. With two hours of daylight left, I paced the 1,500-foot ascent up 109, walking the steepest switchbacks. Then I rocketed down a 1,200-foot descent through lush aspen forest to the spring at Tropic Reservoir. I built my tent beside a creek a quarter mile up from FR-087. After inflating my air mattress, I laid down and reflected on the 45 miles, with a rugged 4,000 feet of climbing that felt like twice that. 

Hey, Boberts. Is it advisable to sleep cook?

Imaginary Boberts shrugged. Western medicine doesn’t have all the answers, my impulsive friend.

The next morning, I rode up the lovely East Fork Sevier River valley before the steep climb to Rainbow Point. The 19 miles along Highway 63 included countless scenic vistas and mostly courteous drivers. I rolled into Bryce Canyon town on the paved path around 3:00 pm[sm caps]. It was a bittersweet arrival. I’d closed one of many possible loops through arguably the best scenery on the Paunsaugunt Plateau. I’d learned a lot about how to search for a bikepacking route. But I’d made many mistakes along the way — exhausted by a heat wave, defeated near Flat Top, humbled by Grandview.

Hey, Boberts, do I deserve a beer and buffet?

My professional opinion is yes, said imaginary Boberts. But I’m essentially a self-reinforcing aspect of your own mind.

Works for me. So I moseyed on into Bryce Canyon Lodge, sidled up to the salad bar, and rubbed elbows with hikers from Spain and photographers from Chicago. I alarmed a few road trippers from Brazil and children from Australia — dried blood on my shins, dirt on my forearms, and salt crystals on my helmet hair. I sat solo at a table for four and, at one point, worked on a plate of nothing but salmon filet.

Hey, are you going to finish that? asked imaginary Boberts as a family from Sweden watched me in horror.

Shut up, imaginary Boberts, I whispered. Or people will think I talk to myself when exhausted — but, yes. 

So I did. And because I’m a glutton for punishment, I’ll probably do it all again someday.

Mike Bezemek is a writer/photographer of books and blogs for FalconGuides, Sky Horse, Canoe & Kayak, and others. See more at mikebezemek.com.